1-June-20 General Crime Theory

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There is something intrinsic to our nature to seek to explain the world around us.  It is particularly satisfying to identify one simple explanation for a given scenario, and better still if that explanation can be applied to a number of similar scenarios. 

In a 2000 piece (reproduced in a reader by McLaughlin and Muncie, 2013), Marcus Felson makes the case for a general theory of crime.  He laments that criminologists appear to spread their allegiances over a number of general theories and indeed that, “some […] will insist that criminology is a ‘multiple-paradigm’ field, but that violates every idea of a paradigm as a single road map for scientific exploration” (Felson, 2013, p.188). 

Felson encourages us to “adopt from more successful sciences [sic] the following five standards of scientific coherence” (Felson, 2013, p.189).  These are:

The touch-it standard – this means finding tangible explanations, which engage our five senses.

The near-and-far standard – this means finding explanations which work at all levels (micro and macro), over time and across all places.

The few-too-many standard – this suggests that adopting a small number of explanatory principles, which can be broadly applied, is better than having multiple principles which then require multiple caveats.

The exactly-how standard – this means explicating the mechanisms that explain how your theory works, in precise terms.

The fit-the-facts standard – this means you should continue to collect new evidence for your theory and tweak your theory as needed.  However, if you find yourself straining to fit the facts, it’s time to change the theory.

Felson uses these standards to propose that Routine Activity Approach is a worthy candidate for a general theory of crime.  Routine Activity Approach was developed to make sense of direct contact predatory offences such as burglary and street crime.  It is proposed that such activity requires three elements – a likely offender; a suitable target, and the absence of a capable guardian against the offence. So, for example, a car theft requires an individual motivated to steal a car; a car that can be broken into; and the absence or limited capacity of the owner or onlookers to prevent the theft.  By applying this framework to different crimes and by developing each element further (for example, a ‘suitable’ target may have particular characteristics, such as ‘value’ or ‘visibility’ (Felson, 2013, p.190)), new evidence can consolidate and enrich the theory.

It is possible to see how this framework could be used by police and potential victims to  build up knowledge about how to ‘harden targets’ – such as putting valuables in a car out of sight or adding a steering lock.  Routine Activity Theory is part of a suite of theories that can be described as situational crime prevention.  Situational crime prevention is based on assumptions about how people behave given a set of circumstances – in a similar way to observing how the combination of iron and oxygen over time makes rust, and what might prevent this reaction.

“Crime is a physical act and we must not forget it” (Felson, 2013, p.194).  This is true to the extent that crime has to be perceptible to human cognition – but not all crime is direct contact in its commission, albeit the effects may be physical, either immediately or in the longer term.  For example, coercive control can be exercised by abuse perpetrators entirely through words, non-physical threats and deprivations (such as isolating the victim from friends and family by concocting arguments and divisions; such as taking control of their bank account and therefore access to finance).  Cybercrime can be conducted with international reach from the comfort of one’s home computer and indeed perpetrated independently by web robots or without the victim even being aware.  Similarly, the employer who pays their workers below the minimum wage is not physically stealing money or coercing them to work.

We need also to look beyond crime and consider harm.  Harms include speculative short-selling that wrecks economic livelihoods; a diminishing welfare net yet a burgeoning number of poor households; environmental degradation; institutional racism; crowded and unsafe detention, to name a few.  Applying Routine Activity Theory to these scenarios, we can see that both the direct or indirect perpetrator and the absent capable guardian are often states themselves.  It is often through their omission rather than commission of physical acts: the law not introduced or implemented; the victims ignored; the justice undelivered. 

Frameworks such as Routine Activity Theory have their role.  But as useful as they would be, I am sceptical of unifying theories or magic bullet policies.  Nor am I certain that criminology is the type of science that Felson describes.  Social science (and surely natural science to some extent) is more provisional, contextual and less preoccupied with seeing-is-believing.  Criminology should however be systematic, thoughtful and contribute to the common good.   Perhaps on that, we can all agree.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 


Felson, M., 2000. The Routine Activity Approach as a General Crime Theory. In: E. McLaughlin and J. Muncie, ed. 2013. Criminological Perspectives: Essential Readings. London: Sage Publications. Ch. 18.

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